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Romney seizes on chance for reset

– When President Obama entered the debate hall in Denver on Wednesday night, the air was clear and warm. When he left, the winds where whipping and the temperature had dropped 20 degrees. Coincidentally, that was also the same number of undecided voters who thought the president had a good debate.

In two different polls of undecided voters, Obama received grim reviews. In the CBS poll, 46 percent thought Romney had done the better job. Only 22 percent thought Obama prevailed. In the CNN poll, 67 percent thought Romney had performed well. Only 25 percent could say the same of Obama. Instant polls are a small sample and they only take a momentary impression, but that’s all the Romney camp needed. His advisers were looking simply for a pause in the race – a moment for voters to take a second look at Romney. They got it Wednesday night.

Romney had to explain why the president was a failure while also seeming appealing enough for voters to think he might have policies that will succeed. The risk was he would come off as too aggressive and turn people off. Romney was certainly aggressive. “You’ve had four years,” he told the president during the discussion of deficit reduction. “You said you’d cut the deficit in half. It’s now four years later. We still have trillion-dollar deficits. You found $4 trillion to reduce or to get closer to a balanced budget, except we still show trillion-dollar deficits every year. That doesn’t get the job done.”

Romney seemed alive to the challenge, almost like he was enjoying himself. He looked in command, like he belonged on stage with the president. Voters polled by CBS after the debate showed a dramatic increase in the number who thought Romney cared about them.

The president’s numbers also improved among those voters polled by CBS on the question of caring. He started with 53 percent, and by the end of the night, 69 percent said they thought Obama cared about them. It was the only bright spot of the night for Obama. When Romney spoke, Obama looked down at his notes and smiled, which conveyed something between low-stakes bemusement and “I can’t believe I have to listen to this guy.” Perhaps that’s what happens when you’re president and people don’t often tell you that you’re wrong.

In debates over Romney’s tax plan, health care and Medicare, Obama didn’t prosecute his case nearly as powerfully as his opponent. The president seemed thrown off by the fact that Romney was far more like the man who won the governorship in Massachusetts than the one who had won the Republican primary. Romney bragged about his Massachusetts health care plan, his ability to work with Democrats, accused Obama of giving a “kiss to New York banks,” and insisted that he wouldn’t cut taxes on the rich.

“I’m not looking to cut massive taxes and to reduce the – the revenues going to the government,” Romney said, sounding unlike the self-described “severe conservative” of the previous 18 months.

There might have been a time when this would have upset conservatives, but as GOP strategist Michael Murphy put it, conservatives “have tasted losing for the last couple of weeks.” They’re not going to complain now after a night that “tastes like winning.”

John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent.